Panel: How does Santa Clara County balance public safety?
San José Spotlight held a panel discussion on March 15, 2023 on the topic of de-escalating police violence and what is needed to improve community interactions and prevent future tragedies. Photo by Moryt Milo.

    Big questions remain over policing and accountability, as Santa Clara County law enforcement agencies try to de-escalate their response levels and work toward outcomes that don’t end in tragedy.

    Community and police leaders came together to discuss public safety at a Wednesday panel hosted by San José Spotlight. Participants agreed work needs to be done to address police violence and response to mental health crises.

    “There are some fundamental changes that need to happen in our society for people to feel really safe,” community organizer and panelist Derrick Sanderlin said, who was injured the during 2020 Black Lives Matter protests by a rubber bullet fired by San Jose police officers.

    Other panelists included Santa Clara County Sheriff Bob Jonsen, Santa Clara Police Chief Pat Nikolai and community health advocate Darcie Green. San Jose Police Chief Anthony Mata and representatives from the San Jose Police Officers’ Association declined to attend.

    Violence and accountability 

    Holding local police departments accountable for violence remains a challenge, leaders said. A 2022 audit found nearly a third of San Jose police officers received complaints in 2021. The city launched a portal last December to make police misconduct records more accessible.

    Jonsen said the goal of every law enforcement agency should be to decrease use of force during police interactions. He said increasing oversight through auditors and building relationships with the community is crucial.

    “Almost every law enforcement agency now has really taken de-escalation to a whole new level as far as training protocols, policy provisions to really emphasize…doing everything possible at their disposal prior to using any force,” Jonsen said.

    But Sanderlin said violence remains an issue close to home as videos of police brutality continue to sweep the nation. Even officers who face complaints are able to find work in other departments and while bias trainings can help, there is no way to measure their impact, he added.

    “There were a lot of lives lost here in San Jose, in Santa Clara County… It’s still happening, and there are many names that we can name,” Sanderlin said. “How do we hold (officers) accountable? It’s really hard to say, there’s not a whole lot of options.”

    Green said redirecting funds to community programs is important for those already working to improve public safety. Green served on San Jose’s Reimagining Public Safety Community Advisory Committee, which made recommendations on police reform such as decreasing law enforcement involvement in nonviolent calls and establishing relief funds for police violence survivors.

    “Our communities face trauma, they’re stressed… What would become possible if that was met with radical abundant funding for wellness and family support and education and training?” Green said.

    Policing and mental health 

    Addressing mental health issues in the force and out in the community is becoming more of a priority, panelists said.

    Jonsen and Nikolai pointed to increased mental health services in policing, such as having mental health experts ride along with officers to respond to calls. The city of Santa Clara has a Crisis Intervention Specialist unit to respond to mental health calls. But mental health services remain understaffed countywide, they added.

    Santa Clara County rolled out its 988 program last year to provide an alternative to 911 for mental-health related calls, but it continues to face staffing issues. San Jose Police Department response times are lagging as the department faces chronic understaffing.

    “Unfortunately, the police department is the one that is called, especially at 9 p.m. on a Friday night when there is someone having a mental health crisis with a handgun,” Nikolai said.

    Jonsen said prioritizing mental health is a must as the county deals with a flood of gun permit applications. He said applicants are required to pass a psychological exam as well as put in more gun training hours.

    Nikolai said mental health also extends to those on the force. He said the Santa Clara Police Department has a wellness team for both police officers and their family members.

    “We understand that if an officer is not healthy, they are not going to be a good officer,” he said. “They’re going to make poor decisions.”

    Sanderlin said while there is work to be done to increase resources, that doesn’t mean having mental health services as an alternative to policing should be discredited. Green said investment in alternative programs need to be done on a long-term basis.

    “We fund effective solutions with way too few dollars for too short of a time and in ways that will not even allow for long term success,” Green said. “The bar is always so high for the solutions that don’t center policing… there are many people in our community for whom the police are not an option.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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